Vandu and Raba sit listlessly on a metal bar, under the shadows of blocks of high-rise flats, oblivious to the sounds of traffic and construction work that surround them. With little more than some rope and a few palm trees to play with, there isn't much else to do besides lumber around from one corner of their barren enclosure to the other.
Vandu and Raba are two Bornean Orangutans that have spent most of their lives in captivity at the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a glaring juxtaposition from the their relatives in the wild.
Since the zoo’s inception in 1871, Hong Kong has seen remarkable developments in infrastructure. However, little seems to have changed inside the walls of the zoo.
“It is no credit to Hong Kong to have animals in cages like that,” said animal behaviourist, Cynthia Smillie. “There hasn’t been any attempt to provide the animals with what they need in terms of their environment.”
The captivity of many of the mammals and birds at the government-run zoo has been a cause for concern for animal rights activists and organisations across the city, many of whom have expressed their doubts over the welfare of the animals.
“Vandu, Wah Wah and the other orangutans have developed neurotic and abnormal behaviour, including incessant pacing and rocking in an effort to cope with their confinement,” said Jason Baker, Vice President of International Campaigns for Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Similar behaviour, dubbed "institutional behaviour", can be seen in humans that have spent a long time in institutional environments, such as prisons, orphanages, and mental asylums.
“The male orangutan is obese and immobile; and they are both depressed and behaviourally inhibited,” added Smillie.
The female, Raba, has been captive at the zoo for 22 years. Vandu was introduced in 2010 as her mating partner. Raba gave birth to twins, Wah Wah and Wan Wan, who rejected her due to her inability to feed them. The twins now live in a separate enclosure.
“The zoo, with a team of dedicated staff comprising a veterinary officer, not only provides appropriate diet and proper health care to the animals under our care, but also strives to provide better environment and facilities that provide every opportunity for the animals to express their natural behaviour taking into account the spatial and topographical setting of the gardens,” said a spokesperson for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, continuing, “renovation works aim to provide the Bornean Orangutans with a new enclosure, designed to integrate elements of nature, giving the Bornean Orangutans more space.” The renovation work is set to be complete mid-2018.
However, according to Smillie, mental stimulation is far more important than their living space.
“The zoo must have a strategy to give the orangutans opportunities to exhibit normal species behaviour.”
The argument that zoos have educational merit might have once seemed convincing, but it is debatable whether there are enough education discussions, panels and programmes to truly validate animal captivity on that basis.
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The spokesperson for the zoo added that the zoo has put in place a series of environmental enrichment programmes to promote behavioural opportunities. However, activists are still lobbying for the facility to return to its original stature as just a botanical garden.
“If the zoo agreed to transfer the orangutans to a sanctuary, Peta would cover the cost and make all the logistical arrangements,” said Baker.
“It really is such a shame that Hong Kong continues to let Vandu, Raba and the other orangutans live in such an outdated space,” said Smillie. “A city of such stature must live up to its reputation of being at the forefront of development and infrastructure; and that includes the way we treat animals and care for them.”
Edited by Nicole Moraleda